As a franchise in recent years, FC Dallas has done decently well with first-year head coaches. Luchi Gonzalez was able to lead his team to a playoff appearance at the end of his first full season with the squad, despite growing pains as he adjusted from USL League One to Major League Soccer. Most of that credit goes to a larger sense of team building and continuity that the front office had put in place after years of success under Oscar Pareja, as well as a bevy of young players that Gonzalez knew well.
As the years went on and roster movement continued, Gonzalez’s success shifted, leading to a very difficult season in 2020.
When FC Dallas announced Nico Estevez as the new head coach, similar questions seemed reasonable.
Is Coach Estevez similar to Coach Gonzalez?
Like Gonzalez, Estevez has no head coaching experience in Major League Soccer.
Like Gonzalez, Estevez was making a jump to a more difficult, pressure-packed role.
Unlike Gonzalez, Estevez does have Major League Soccer experience as an assistant coach and familiarity with players from the league and national team, including some of FC Dallas’ roster.
How then should fans judge Estevez? What should we expect?
I asked the head coach this past week during media availability what fans should look for. Obviously, any coach wants results, but what about specific goals the team has for the way it plays and competes?
Estevez was forthright in his answer.
“First thing, MLS is a very equal league,” Estevez said, pointing to the slog ahead of him in his first year. “The essence of this league is that you don’t see a team winning two years in a row. For that reason, I think every coach and every team has moments when things don’t go our way. Of course, we are going to be in a process of learning every single weekend - when things are going bad and well.”
“For me as a coach, in this first year, I know the business - results are going to be important,” Estevez answered. “We have to stick to the process with how to build a team that is consistent and can compete with any team in the league. We have a clear identity. If we can get these things, the fans are going to be thrilled because of the identity, and the players will give everything.”
What is going for Coach Estevez is the exciting sale of Ricardo Pepi and the influx of cash and status that FC Dallas benefits from over the offseason. The sale has paved the way for the signing of Alan Velasco, a heralded youngster from Argentina, as well as US national team regular Paul Arriola. In addition, loan options for solid veterans like Nanu and Maerten Paes, promise to provide competition and depth for a squad that lacked able bodies. Add on top the continued growth of guys like Paxton Pomykal, Brandon Servania, and Jesus Ferreira - this is a team in a different place.
Estevez brings an energy and passion similar to Gonzalez, but already in media calls, his focus and way of approaching the game reveals his level of seasoning and realism that is a breath of fresh air after it seemed like Gonzalez hit a wall last year, unable to motivate a team or find a way to turn around the level of play.
Of course, nothing is guaranteed, even with the signings and fresh energy and reinvestment in the squad. Estevez could struggle. Any MLS team is an injury or two away from a tailspin.
So, what should FC Dallas expect?
1 - The start may be slow.
Expect Coach Estevez and this squad to build in the first set of games, as they continue to get into game shape and figure out their identity. We might even see some adjustment to lineups and approaches, even though the tactics already implemented seem very friendly to the current set of players. Don’t be surprised if a guy like Tafari breaks into a starting role quite quickly if the defense struggles.
2 - Playoffs are not out of the question.
Most first-year coaches are given a pass on the first season as they work out the roster, implement their vision, and build momentum. Estevez inherits a roster that is in far better shape than other situations around the league. There is real talent on this squad and incoming talent that can be a difference. Many of the under-performing players were jettisoned. There isn’t a ton of excuse if this roster absolutely struggles to get results. If the team struggles though, we may begin to question Nico’s direction.
3 - Matt Hedges and Jesus Ferreira are key.
If Hedges comes out of the gates healthy and confident and Jesus can get going early, watch out. FC Dallas could be one of the sneaky teams to rival for hardware in all competitions. There is enough depth on this roster, including Szabolcs Schön, who could break out and help carry this team in key spots in the months ahead. There is simply a lot of room for growth.
4 - Look for a surprise story.
I’ve already been impressed with the contributions of Maarten Paes, a GK who is flying under the radar and looking to reestablish his future. Could Nanu end up being the low-key loan of 2022? Will Marco Farfan drop right in where Ryan Hollingshead left off? Is this the year of Brandon Servania? Will Franco Jara get healthy and play a vital role?
I don’t know what the surprise story is for FC Dallas, but I am hopeful whatever that story is reveals the ability of Estevez to get more out of this squad than in the past.
Granted, Estevez is aware of this, remarking that “there are things we cannot control.”
It will be an up and down season.
Regardless, it is a new era for FC Dallas under his leadership, and the future is both uncertain and bright. Let’s judge Nico based on what he set forth - a team that we will be proud of on and off the pitch, a team with identity and passion for the game. And a team that hopefully gets the results in 2022.